Teachers, Like Students, Learn by Doing: Project Learning at Envision Schools | Edutopia
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Teachers, Like Students, Learn by Doing: Project Learning at Envision Schools

Bob Lenz

Co-founder and Chief of Innovation, Envision Education, Oakland CA
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A quote by experiential-education pioneer Kurt Hahn projects brightly onto a large screen: "We are crew, not passengers." After a brief welcome, the thirty-five new teachers at Envision Schools are asked to respond to the quote in their journals. Then, following some quiet reflection time, the teachers meet their fellow group members.

A quote by experiential-education pioneer Kurt Hahn projects brightly onto a large screen: "We are crew, not passengers." After a brief welcome, the thirty-five new teachers at Envision Schools are asked to respond to the quote in their journals. Then, following some quiet reflection time, the teachers meet their fellow group members. (Groups are heterogeneous -- teachers come from different schools and content areas and have varying levels of technical expertise.) Within their new group, teachers then discuss their response to the quote and how they think the quote will impact the way they work as a whole over the next two days.

Credit: California State Parks

The Envision Schools facilitator then leads an activity on the attributes of high-quality stories. Next, she asks, "What do you think is happening in this photo?"

After discussing the photo, she then projects the graph below. "What could this data possibly be describing?" she asks, challenging this group of teachers-as-students.

"Together, we will explore the essential question 'Why do we exclude people?' by exploring the Angel Island Immigration Station," the facilitator explains. "Each group will propose an answer and present their findings through a digital story and free-verse poetry. Hopefully, your curiosity is piqued. Let's go -- we have a boat to catch!"

The teachers and the facilitator catch the next ferry to Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, to spend the day learning about immigration and exclusion by visiting the Angel Island Immigration Station, a facility that detained Chinese immigrants in the early 1900s. Teachers will spend the day learning from expert docents, exploring primary source documents, reading and writing free verse (the walls of the Immigration Station are covered with the immigrants' original poetry), studying challenging historical documents using literacy strategies from the Strategic Literacy Initiative (SLI), and finding answers to the questions raised by the above photo and chart at the Angel Island museum.

After a long day on the island, the students are given their assignments: Consider the question of why humans exclude others and create a response using evidence gathered on Angel Island. This homework is also aligned with the Envision Schools performance-assessment system. (If we, as facilitators, had more time, this homework assignment would be the first step toward an essay that could be used in a Lower Division Benchmark Portfolio or a Graduation Portfolio.)

The teachers will then use the Oracle Education Foundation's Think.com Web site to post their responses. This assignment will prepare the teachers for their tasks the next day: To answer the question of exclusion, they must create and present a short digital story using Apple's iMovie and create and present a free-verse poem. In addition, both assignments have benchmark assignments that must be completed and assessed by one of the school's facilitators.

The next day, teachers arrive early and ready to go to work -- the power of public performance motivates younger and older educators alike. The groups work diligently and frantically during the morning to complete their digital story and their poetry and present them to the larger group, in addition to other members of the Envision Schools professional-learning community, that afternoon. Through the experience, teachers learn that a project-based-learning classroom feels a little like chaos -- managed chaos. It is definitely clear PBL is active learning. They also learn that the power of performance can motivate even the most reluctant learners.

As great as the learning is during the "doing" stage of PBL, the real learning occurs during reflection. The facilitator asks folks to reflect in three ways: as individuals, as a work group, and as a large group. Teachers quickly move from making generalizations about the experience and its implications to applying what they've learned to the teachers' future classrooms, their integrated project-based teams, and their schools as a whole.

They introduce the tools used for design -- the Six A's of PBL, Simultaneous Outcomes, and Balanced Assessment (see below) -- and discuss how to use them. It is clear these are the types of activities and projects expected at Envision Schools. Finally, the teachers get to use these tools to design projects with support from facilitators (this type of support continues throughout their career at Envision Schools, with fifteen days of student-free professional-development time annually, five hours of collaborative time weekly, and monthly classroom mentoring).

Though this two-day experience is merely a slice of a project and is really just a PBL teaser, teachers leave excited and motivated to design their own powerful experiences. Envision teachers leave as members of the crew, ready to change lives and prepare students for success in college and beyond.

What do you think of this learning/teaching assignment and process? I'd be interested in your comments.

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Frank's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed the article on learning by doing. As a computer teacher the physical act of doing is of great importance to me and to my teaching. I try my hardest to keep my lectures under 10 minutes at the elementary level and under 15 minutes at the middle grades level. The students can't keep their hands off the keyboard and mouse, so why should I force them to sit with their hands folded. I encourage my students to take the bull by the horn, so to speak, and try new things (I just always tell them to save their work frequently).

Once when teaching a third grade class about the difference between a file and folder in MS Windows and how to organize their files and folders, I walked them to the schools record vault and showed them real folders that were filled with real files - You should have seen all the light bulbs that turned on. To take it a step further, I had them make puppets out of manila file folders and we made a song about how important it is to save and how important it is to save to a folder. I love doing hands-on assignments!!

Steven Mullins's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am also a social studies teacher who works primarily with ESOL students. In teaching them US History, I have found that they are missing the foundation in US history that they normally would have received in elementary and middle school classes. I have found that the best way to deliver this foundational information to them is by utilyzing hands on activities. Yesterday's lesson is a perfect example. Although the three branches of government are not a part of the required academic knowledge and skills for US History, a knowledge of the branches of government and how the government works is critical to understanding US history. I divided up the class into the different branches of government and allowed them to role play the passage of a very important law - a law that makes it illegal for teachers to give students homework. They were able to watch the law work its way through committees in both the House and Senate, through the votes in both Houses of Congress, to the President's desk for his signature, and finally to the Supreme Court (because I challenged the law on constitutional grounds). In our review today, even the less advanced students had a good basic grasp of how a proposed bill becomes a law. By making it hands on and relevant to them, I greatly enhanced their chances of retaining that information. If I had delivered the same information through a lecture or handout, I doubt that they would have retained nearly as much information.

R. Miller's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I, too, am a science teacher. For me, it has always been easy to use hands-on activities in the classrooms. The students enjoy the subject much more than by using just a worksheet for learning. 75% of the time they are just copying answers from the book, anyway. I am a HUGE fan of hands-on learning. I love watching the students mixing things, manipulating things, etc. This is how I teach, and I think it is just a part of how students learn.

PBL has always fascinated me. I am, however, very skeptical about it. In order for a project like this to work, you need everyone to buy into it. The students and team members/faculty need to go through with the project. Many administrators are also leary of this type of learning. It is not typical learning...few tests, classroom looks chaotic, etc. In today's society of high-stakes testing, is there room in a classroom to actually do a project that lasts a whole semester or year?

Allison's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you completely - I love "out of the box" activities, but if they are simply designed to be something fun, I don't have time to fit them in. We are so packed with the things we have to teach before benchmark tests, post-tests, CRCT, etc, that you have to make every lesson count. Why bother doing something that will not directly link back to your lesson? You have to make sure you explicitly tie the activity together with the desired lesson, to make sure your students make the most of the lesson.

Shines's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that hands on learning works. I think one reason is because it is more fun and can be defined as learning with a purpose. Can you imagine having to sit for ninety minutes and hear a lecture or complete worksheets? How boring for the teacher and the students. Our school is on a four by four ninety minute block schedule. When changing to block was first considered, having more time to complete labs in vocational classes was an advantage. Our school system has a neat program which allows hands-on job related experiences. Students participate in health occupation,auto mechanics, small animal care, and cosmetology just to name a few. These classes allow them to gain hands on experience and have a chance to get a job at the the place where they practiced. What better way to prepare them for the real world. Career Academies are becoming the next best things because many students will not enroll in a four year college. Most will go to from school to a work setting.

K. Berry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hi Terri,
That is one of the things that is so excited about the new Technology standards. Check those out if you get a chance, but everything you are addressing is in those standards. We MUST teach our students to think and make decisions. It is amazing to me how many of my middle schoolers look at like a "deer in headlights" when I tell them that how they do the project is up to them as long as they meet the requirements. They are so used to the teacher handing them a fill-in-blank study guide that they don't know how to proceed. It sounds to me like you are teaching our students life skills which they will need whether they go to college or go to work. Thank you for sharing your ideas.

J.O.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have always thought that people learn better when they are actually "doing" something and that they gain true understanding through discussion. I am a high school math teacher who teaches upper level math courses. While I think the hands-on approach is vital to learning I've never been able to see how it is realistic in upper level math classes. If anyone has and suggestions in how I can make a course like Advanced Algebra/Trigonometry more hands-on I would greatly appreciate it.

Donna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My district just adapted Prentice Hall's Connected Math 2 program for the sixth and seventh grades. Next year eighth grade will be included in our venture. Every lesson includes a launch (teacher focused), explore (student focused), and summary (both teacher and student). It is really based on critical thinking and how to solve real life applications. The program works best in a block schedule for 90 minutes. We only have a 42 minute period so the lessons are taking double the time. Next year we are going to a block schedule. All teachers are up for the challenge and I am curious to see how the students fair on the dreaded state testing.

Jessie Frank's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with your statements. I too feel that the hands on activity must fit the learning outcomes. I teach middle school math and I try to implement hands on activities, however I feel it is hard to find or create activities for Pre-Algebra. I can make connections to real world experiences, but I struggle with hands on activities. I would like to get my middle school students up and moving around the room more often.


Jonathan C.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hands on learning is the way to go, however teachers need to make sure that they take it one step further. I definately agree that the hands on approach helps the students grasp the concept we are teachign about, but I think it is important to follow up the hands on lesson with some type of application and discussion. You need to make sure that the students are "taking something" from the lesson, as opposed to it just being "fun". Dont get me wrong the students love the hands on lessons, it is more meaningful to them, as opposed to sitting through a lecture. I think it is great when you can pair a lesson with some type of hands on experience; it will enhance their learning.

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